It would seem the height of hubris to take the music of Ludwig van Beethoven — arguably the greatest classical music composer of all time — and perform it side by side with the work of a living pop musician. But that’s what conductor Yuga Cohler and arranger Johan (who goes by one name) have done with their ongoing project Yeethoven, which marries the melodies of Beethoven with the music of Kanye West.
The duo first presented this musical mashup in concert in 2016, when Cohler led the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Chamber Orchestra in a performance at the Aratani Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo, where several of Beethoven’s classic pieces were bracketed with symphonic interpretations of tracks from West’s Yeezus album. Tonight at the Belasco Theater, Cohler, Johan and the YMF orchestra revive the idea as Yeethoven II, with an added emphasis on selections adapted from West’s 2016 follow-up recording, The Life of Pablo.
What makes the ambitious project all the more curious is that Johan and Cohler aren’t interested in the lyrics of West — one of this era’s most popular, if commercially mainstream, rappers. Instead, they are more fascinated by the music behind West’s words.
“It’s all instrumental,” Johan explains in a joint phone interview with Cohler about Yeethoven II. “It’s more focused on his production and how he pushed boundaries on his last two albums.”
“The last two albums, the way he’s stretched the songs, is very reminiscent of the way classical composers structure their compositions,” Cohler adds.
Cohler conducts the 50-piece YMF Debut Chamber Orchestra, which is made up of local musicians who range in age from 15 to 25 years old. No electronic instruments are used — no modern guitars, electric keyboards or samplers — as the orchestra relies instead on traditional classical acoustic instrumentation.
“They’ve been remarkably receptive to this and adapting to it,” Cohler says of the musicians in the orchestra.
“There’s this yearning among young musicians who are classically trained to be less constrained by the traditional repertoire,” Johan adds. “There’s an excitement around this kind of thing. … Good music is good music.”
And what does Kanye West think of Yeethoven? “I’m pretty sure he’s heard it,” Johan says. “We haven’t heard anything official about it, but I know he knows about it.”
Cohler and the orchestra generally take a popular passage by Beethoven and follow it with an instrumental version of one of West’s songs, such as “Waves” or “Ultralight Beam,” before segueing back to Beethoven. At times, Johan has arranged parts that combine elements by both composers. (To be clear, West collaborated with several dozen separate co-songwriters and co-producers on The Life of Pablo, whereas Beethoven was a far more autonomous creative entity.)
When distinct selections by each composer are played back to back, one can’t help noticing that Beethoven’s tunes are more multilayered and melodically varied, whereas West’s instrumentals tend to be rooted in more repetitive themes. On the other hand, the juxtaposition adds heft to West’s music, and the better moments emphasize that the rapper’s songs don’t need to rely on his lyrics to maintain emotional intensity.
Mashups of works by Beethoven and other classical composers with pop songs aren’t anything new. The Beatles ballad “Because” echoes Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and the first movement of the German composer’s dramatic Fifth Symphony was neatly shrunk down into a tacky slice of ’70s disco ephemera (“A Fifth of Beethoven”) by Walter Murphy & the Big Apple Band. Numerous attempts have been made to combine the majesty of symphonic arrangements with the energy and immediacy of contemporary pop music, and the results have often been treacly and only seemed to draw out the worst, most clichéd tendencies of each genre (e.g., The Moody Blues’ corny 1967 rock-classical opus Days of Future Passed).
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The classical world is always looking for younger audiences, though, and sometimes the cross-cultural collaborations pay off. Opera houses are increasingly looking to repeat the popularity of Glee and other musical series by hiring more Broadway vocalists. And just about every major classical orchestra spends at least part of the year backing popular rock, pop and jazz musicians.
Although Johan and Cohler initially considered using the work of other classical composers to frame Kanye’s music, they began seeing parallels between the lives of Beethoven and West. “We eventually came to Beethoven,” Cohler says. “Beethoven’s music was known for being complex for his time. Our thesis is that Kanye has a similar trajectory. His latest work follows a more complex trajectory [than his early albums].”
Johan also sees similarities in “their influence on the broader culture in their respective times. … We’re more interested in making a point about certain kinds of creative musicians, how they interact with the culture they live in. … This is an argument we’re trying to make about Kanye’s music — what better way than to juxtapose them and see how they connect?”
Yeethoven II, along with sets from MNDSGN, Joyce Wrice and Kay Franklin, is performed at the Belasco Theater, 1050 S. Hill St., downtown L.A.; Thu., Dec. 14, 7 p.m.; $35-$250. (213) 747-0196, yeethoven.org.